PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. -- A morning here is punctuated by shouts and yells. Standing at an area reserved for martial-arts training sometime around 7 a.m. -- practically afternoon by Parris Island standards -- I can hear platoons in the distance well before I can see them. There are the distinct, barking voices of drill instructors, inevitably followed by the staccato collective answers of their platoons of recruits.
When the platoons come into view, the recruits are jogging in loose formation, constantly prodded and harried by drill instructors wearing yellow T-shirts, running up and down among them, picking out recruits for shouted instructions, correction or what seems to be pure harassment. The instructors appear eternally pissed, bending at the waist to lean in close to the recruits' faces to give them the full blast of their yells.
U.S. national security depends on what happens on this sand-flea-infested island in the middle of a swamp. It is here that kids are forged into the Marines so feared by the enemy that they have variously been dubbed "the devils dogs" (by the Germans in World War II) and "the angels of death" (by the Iraqis in the first Gulf War), and who knows what epithet by the thugs they now confront in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq.
Even for a civilian who sympathizes with the culture of the military, it can be painful to watch. In one exercise, a recruit is beaten silly in a bout with another recruit with "pugil" sticks -- large, padded sticks meant to resemble bayonets. As he wobbles away, the drill instructor spits invective at him: "You're disgusting, Duncan. You hear me? You're disgusting." Not "Nice try." Not "Better luck next time."
The instructors are convinced that the harder they are on the recruits, the better they will eventually be as Marines, and that there can be no higher honor than membership in this fierce fighting brethren. The recruits are learning an unquestioning submission to authority and unit discipline. They always refer to themselves in the third person because "I" is no longer part of their vocabulary. The Marines realize in a way that the rest of our culture doesn't that the path to true self-esteem -- to self-confidence and competence -- runs through the obliteration of selfishness.